Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 8

Friend and Foe

Friend and Foe is not an album that benefits from first impressions. It introduces itself as a challenging, if not outright difficult, listen. The principal vocalist favors a squawking falsetto. The instrumentation jumps around so quickly and frequently that it can feel arbitrary.

Then its framework and loops start to become familiar. The melodies take root in the brain. The falsetto ingratiates itself. Before long, it seems that they were always this way, that there was never a time when everything didn't fit just so.

Much like its busy cover, the songs on Friend and Foe are complicated creations that need time to digest and process. All three members of the Portland-based band sing, arrange and write songs. Justin Harris plays bass, saxophones and guitar; Brent Knopf handles keyboards and guitar; Danny Seim mans the drums. Yet it's not the number of elements that gives Friend and Foe its bustle; it's how those elements are arranged.

"The Pelican," for example, begins with two piano tones: one low, one high. Harris comes in with his falsetto: "Take it! When I'm not looking!" A guitar goes live after the first verse, its sharp twang resounding as Seim's sticks scrabble across his kit. The guitar breaks free of the melee for a moment, then it supports a stack of backing vocals as they aim for the sky. As Harris returns, abetted by the backing vocals and a different guitar part, Seim makes sure all four of his limbs are in motion.

Such rapid-fire substitutions and the way they are truncated but repeated bring to mind the chopping and splicing of tape loops, which might be why Menomena have had their creative methodology misunderstood on occasion. In brainstorming sessions, they employ a computer program called the Digital Looping Recorder, or Deeler. It's basically a glorified sampler, but the words "computer program" and "looping" gave birth to a mistaken impression that Deeler takes care of the arrangements. The band does that.

The visual component is a different story. For it, Menomena turned to the ink of graphic novelist Craig Thompson, who then drew a world swarming with activity and embedded with key phrases from the songs. The pandemonium of his scenes goes hand in hand with Friend and Foe's tumultuous abundance. You get jingle bells. You get saxophone. You get bombast.

You also get plenty of quirkiness, including cow samples on "Running." The ditty certainly evokes all things bovine, with a galumphing bass line and lyrics like "It's safe to say / if we don't find food soon / we won't make it through winter."

The whistling that opens "Boyscout'n" replaces that cow image with a scout march: a bunch of pure-hearted little souls who've never felt the sting of rejection or betrayal --- which, incidentally, are all over Friend and Foe. Fair-weather friends ("Weird"), lies ("Ghostship"), fatigue ("Muscle'n Flo") and more struggles

add a grim shade of reality to the album's whimsy.

Just don't expect to take it all in at once.

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